Great to blog again after so long. A lot of my people asked me a few times why I had stopped blogging. Well, no excuse – maybe just laziness – or may be I was waiting for the big reason to write again.
On 3rd June I ran the Comrades1 for the first time and could not stop talking about it for days. Clearly I was on a big high. I had run 89.28 kms from Pietermaritzburg to Durban in 11 hours 56 minutes, including the 7 odd minutes I took to just reach the start line. My husband, Kaushik, suggested that I write about it. That sounded painful. When you write, as opposed to talking, you have to worry about structure, grammar, etc. and I have a disease – I just can’t write short posts. Plus I had read Amit Sheth’s blogs about Comrades and they were so fascinating that I didn’t think there was anything more to write.
Suddenly it struck me that there is one unique perspective that I have. There were 19,000 runners who signed up for Comrades 2012, out of which only 14,000 made it to the Start Line. Out of the remaining 5000, I can conservatively assume that a majority would be first time Comrades runners, say 3000 (60%). This is just a guess based on the Indian contingent statistics that suggest that 78% of those who dropped out before the race were first time runners. This brings out a startling trend. Out of 7000 people who register for their First Comrades Race, only 4000 actually end up reaching the start line, i.e. just over 50%. The reason I spent time thinking about this is that I was one of the 5000 last year and was quite close to being one this year too.
The 2011 Breakdown
I still remember the mail I received from a friend on 14 Jan 2010 with the subject line “Comrades – the Best Ultra Marathon”. That was the birth of the fascination. I was told that entries open and close on 1 Sept 2010 and I registered first thing in the morning. Ran the Bangalore Ultra in the same year completing 75 kms in 11:23. Not bad to start with I thought. Did my qualifying marathon in Jan 2011 in 4:54. That was my personal best for marathons and I thought I was in my best form ever. And then, it all went downhill from there!
I had my first running injury ever! My right gluteus maximus (that’s what the docs called the largest of the butt muscles) would severely start hurting the moment I crossed 12K in training. Then I would pop a Brufen and do another 6-7K before the effect would wear off and I was back with excruciating pain! 4 months and several physio sessions later I was at the same place - could not run a half marathon without a painkiller.
Sometime in early April (just over a month to the race) Kaushik decided he had to intervene. We were at a bar in Lusaka when he decided to talk straight. He said, “Listen I think you are really stubborn, but if you had a daughter, would you let her destroy her body like this?” I knew I did not have a case. Using painkillers to train is myopic. We made a deal – I promised to not have any painkillers during training and he promised to be with me at the start line of Comrades 2012.
I kept my side of the deal and he kept his. I remember crying the day I officially bowed out – a month before the race. I had decided to run a marathon overnight. If I could complete it without the painkillers, I would go to South Africa. I dragged my legs in pain till 30K and then it was over for my 2011 dream.
Now that I had started thinking of the Comrades Finish Line, I was restless. But, the downhill period continued. And I am not talking about the Comrades route here (bad joke!). My month long wedding and honeymoon in Dec -Jan and two massive falls (one during a training run at Rome where we were honeymooning and another identical fall back in Mumbai) ensured that I ran the qualifying marathon in Jan 2012 with the least training ever. Just about made the Comrades cut-off with a 4:58 timing.
The next 4 months of training were not much better and my Comrades training was marred by couple of long bouts of sickness, a few emotional setbacks and frequent reappearances of the gluteus pain. I ran a total of 350K in the 6 months leading up to the race (including the qualifying marathon). What was worse – these were mostly on the treadmill, since I was extremely paranoid about another injury due to a fall and a bit paranoid about running alone at night (which is the only feasible option given the weather here). Well, if you have read about the race, a minimum of 1200K of hill running is recommended and a lot of runners do upto 1800K. My longest had been a 55K run on a treadmill in 8.5 hours (you can do the math to figure out just how lame that is!).
So, all the excuses were in place for yet another skip. But, the problem was that Kaushik and I had made travel and hotel reservations long back and I did not have the heart to tell him it wasn’t happening – yet again. My only hope was if our visas did not come through! Kaushik and I travel a lot, but still keep running into visa trouble and because of a couple of international trips, we just had 9 business days to get the visas. Well, the day before our travel date, I realized that wasn’t happening either. So, I gave our parents and friends all the disclaimers about my lack of practice and in fact, when Bikram asked me what I would do just in case I finished the race, I thought about it for a second and said, “I think I will cry out of disbelief and happiness”. We took off for South Africa a week before the race.
Travelling through Stellenbosch and Cape Town, I knew there was nothing that could now come in between me and the start line. So, if I had to give it my best shot, I had to stop lining up more excuses and had to do some serious visualization. I spent all my free time imagining the race, the cheering, the pain (as they say, if you’re not hurting, you are not winning), the finish line (with just a few minutes to the gun). Over and over again in my mind, I would cross the finish line at eleven-fifty-something, crash into Kaushik’s arms and start crying.
The Race Day
We reached Durban 2 days before the race and everywhere - at the airport, at the Comrades expo, at the hotel, while touring the route, we kept meeting runners attempting their 10th, 25th, 40th, etc. race. I would have said it was a humbling experience, had my lack of practice not already humbled me as much! In South Africa, road running is a huge cult with several running clubs that coach and field runners (I bet if even India had that kind of weather, roads, hills and coastline, running would have surpassed cricket as the most popular sport)! Almost every family in SA has a Comrades runner and the papers, radios and TV channels and buzzing with Comrades news. So, it was reassuring on the morning of the race, when I finally met a few other first time runners at the McDonalds’ in ‘Maritzburg. At the same place, a gentleman who had run it 10 times told me about how he finished in 11:59:30 in his 2nd Comrades only to realize that 24 others had finished just after him! Wow – I thought – I should try to make it a bit less adventurous than that! Kaushik (who stayed up all night so that he could drive me 90K to the start line at 3 AM) commented on how all the happy eating-and-drinking at McDonalds looked more like a picnic rather than the start of a race. It was only the ChampionChip2 on the shoe that differentiated the runners and the supporters, the latter being far outnumbered.
It was 5 AM and I kissed Kaushik goodbye to join the last seeding batch (basis our qualifying marathon timing and previous Comrades experience) of runners. At 5:15 AM the South African anthem and the “Chariots of Fire” theme got all the runners singing and swaying in excitement. I was frozen (cold and fear), but the other participants would not have it, so they held my hand and made me sway along too!
At 5:30 AM, the gun went off and we started running slowly uphill and I could hear runners talk about how far “Polly shorts” was (one of the “Big Five” bad hills that take turns to destroy your knees and quads). A sweet girl introduced herself to me and suggested we run together the whole way. I am sorry, Richita, I just lost track of you so soon – I hope you made it!
I would have just about crossed Polly, when the first tragedy hit! My right gluteus did a little “Aboo!” out of the blue. I counted the number of Brufens in my pocket (it was allowed on race day since I had been at my best behaviour pre-race – at least with regards to the painkillers). I had 3 and Kaushik was going to meet me at 60K, so if I have one at 20K, next at 40K and the third at 60K, he might be able to give me a couple more for the remaining race. I popped one at 18K and the next 15K were smooth sailing! The sun was out and most of us had shed our woollens and were enjoying the pleasant breeze. I was trying to run with the sub 12 hour pacer so as to maintain my speed, but it was getting tougher with every mile. Firstly, the pacer was switching between walking and running quite frequently and I was not that comfortable with the switches. Secondly, he also made the group run some up-slopes and walk some down-slopes and, although I was happy about the latter, I just could not manage the former. Thirdly, he did not seem to cater for washroom breaks. And, finally, to my utter horror, I was getting stretched trying to keep pace with him. And for some vague reason, he kept saying for the longest time that the Comrades had not even begun yet!
So, between 35 and 40K I fell behind the first pacer and joined the second pacer and somewhere around 40K, I saw the last of the last pacer. From thereon, it was just me, my watch and my big dreams of finishing! I had the second pill since the pain had suddenly shot back and started talking to my legs to keep the pain under control. I was focusing on running on my toes and keeping my back straight (my physiotherapist had explained that the pain was because of my flat-foot heel running and excessive swaying). I spent a few kms actually saying “Toe! Toe! Toe! Toe!” in my mind and made it to the Arthur’s Seat (where they have a permanent Wall of Honour with the names of Comrades finishers).
Around the half way mark I overtook the man who would feature in my thoughts through the remaining half. Japie Greyvenstein (I think that was his name) was running with a prosthetic leg. Every time I winced with pain, I’d remind myself that it was still insignificant in comparison and not reason enough to give up. (I know Japie did not finish, but I could see how his heroic effort touched and inspired several runners around him. Hats off!)
The 42K – 53K stretch was significantly uphill and by then my right leg was in such bad shape that I was literally keeping it straight and dragging it with my left leg. That was the longest stretch of the race, but I put my iPod on and kept moving. Surprisingly, I didn’t see any other runner with a music device on the entire course. I guess that was not only because all Comrades literature advises against music so that runners can focus more on their body and the timing, but also because it is easily one of the most picturesque races in the world - lovely hills and countryside throughout.
From 58K onwards I started looking out for Kaushik, who had promised to be there around the 60K mark with some Milky Bar, Bar One and energy drinks. 59...60...61...62...I wondered whether he’d overslept or maybe he miscalculated my speed or perhaps these spectator points were not accessible or did he lose his way...63...64...65 and I gave up thinking about getting to see him. The pain in my right knee and gluteus was killing me, my speed had dropped dramatically, most runners were now overtaking me and I was way behind the schedule as per the worst case scenario in my mind. I had just had my last painkiller, but it was not effective anymore. I was seriously considering one of the rescue buses. But, I told myself that I have to just keep moving for now, so that when the steep downhill finally comes, I can cover up. It was also some respite that a few other experienced runners (10+ Comrades races) seemed to still be in my proximity. I could see some light, albeit at the far end of the tunnel!
And then suddenly at the 68K mark, Kaushik magically appeared out of nowhere. The repressed pain came bursting out from inside me as I completely broke down upon seeing him. I realized how silly I must have looked and quickly wiped my tears as I told him about the pain and how I don’t think I can do it anymore. He did not have any painkillers, but his words helped. He told me to just hang in there and that the other pacer was just 5 minutes ahead of me, so it was not panic time yet. Reassured I started running again and I found him waiting for me again at the 71K mark. Some more encouraging words and some pain relieving spray and I reached the 76K mark. I saw him there again and promised him that I was making it to the finish line. I had 1:45 to do the last 13K and I could almost hear the cheers at the stadium. The left leg was my hero as it kept dragging the almost dysfunctional right leg up the hill and down again. But, even more heroic than that were some of the other runners around me – the lady who kept moving through so much pain that her back was completely arched, the old gentleman who kept looking at the watch even as the medics were treating his cramps and Neepa, who ran in the opposite direction when she saw her husband, Amit, fall a few metres behind us and of course Amit, who recovered from the fall to run to completion.
8K left and more than an hour to go - I knew I’d nail it if I just kept running. An amazing bystander paced me for some distance explaining what was left of the course and urging me to keep the momentum. And before I knew it, I could hear the music from the stadium. Just 1K to go and 12 minutes to spare I was sprinting (I realized later that what seemed like a sprint to me was just about 9 kmph J)
I entered the Sahara Kingsmead Stadium along with a few other runners and there were lakhs of cheering, screaming supporters. I started looking around for Kaushik and 20 metres to the finish, I saw him looking anxious. According to him, rather than running straight into the finish, I started moving in his direction. Well, whatever...I did cross the finish at 11:56:36 and leapt into his arms as I had imagined. I had lived this moment so many times in my thoughts, but this was grander. The stadium lights were brighter, the cheers were louder and the happiness was extreme. The only anticlimax was, well, I did not actually end up crying. I was just happy high!
In spite of the odds being heavily stacked against me, I made it – only because Comrades is a very very special race. It makes you a better person.
Thank you, Richita, Balaji, Narendra, Parag, Neepa, Vishal, Devashish and several other awesome runners– it takes a lot to inspire another runner when you’re fighting such a tough mental, emotional battle with yourself.
Thank you, Ma, Pa, Mumma, Baba, Reema, Navya, Shereen, Bik, Ravi, Reshu, Vivek, Rahul, Ram, Bhush, Bubs, Jas, Aditya, and all my other amazing friends for putting up for months with all the Comrades talk– I really saw each one of your faces multiple times during the race.
And most importantly, thank you, Kaushik - for what you said at 0.1K, 68K, 71K, 76K, on the morning of the race and on all those days leading up to it, for the sip of red wine at 78K J, for believing in me all along 100 times more than I did and for holding my hand and feeling my pain through the 89K.
Well, given that my overall rank was 11,688 and category rank 212, I am still a non-authority as far as the race goes. But, this blog is dedicated to those who are on the verge of creating the “unavoidable reason” for not showing up at the start line for the Comrades. If you are, these 10 suggestions might help you:
- If you think you can do a marathon under 5 hours, do land up at the start line. The race day energy, millions of supporters, lovely weather and pristine countryside will get you to the 70K mark at least. Thereafter, you have life’s best shot at amazing yourself!
- Find your angel – spouse, parent, best friend, just anyone who is just not ready to give up on you. It is so much fun to just keep trying to convince them how you can’t do it and just keep falling Bam! Bam! Bam! - Flat against their solid conviction!
- Book your tickets way in advance. We did ours in Jan 2012. Even if you have done an MBA, chances are that you will never understand that it is sunk cost and that just might get you to the start line.
- Visualize the race and the finish line several days in advance – every small detail from your sweaty clothes to the exact parts where the pain keeps mounting (it will surely be more painful than the peak during visualization, but still!) to what you keep telling yourself to ease the pain to the expressions on the faces of those you embrace at the finish line.
- You know this – but believe me, you will never be able to do an excess of this! Taper well and keep your legs fresh (I know I know – if you’ve hardly trained, it’s not technically a “taper”), do tonnes of carb loading (most runners I know love eating – so this should be easy except that we often eat junk in the name of carb loading – like I don’t think all those Mugg and Bean cheesecakes I had would qualify as carb loading) and sleep well on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night before the race!
- Talk to your mum on the night before. Unless she is a Comrades runner herself, she will tell you how crazy 89K is and that she will be proud of you even if you do a fraction of it! That helped me not hate myself too much during the race for not being as fast and fit as all the other runners!
- Don’t have painkillers in practice or during the race. They just temporarily numb the pain and your body will get immune to them quite soon and the pain will keep resurfacing! It is better to focus on your running technique to reduce the pain and injury.
- Stick to one of the pacers for dear life! I could not manage that, but I learnt that each of the sub 12 hour pacers brought along with them 30-40 runners successfully to the finish. The teamwork dramatically reduces the pressure and you spend less energy repeatedly looking at the watch and doing back calculations! But, if your body is fundamentally not in agreement with the pace, listen to your body. You still have a shot at the finish line as several hundreds finish after the last pacer.
- Do keep eating and drinking through the race, but use discretion! I was worried about refreshment points drying up towards the end like it often happens in Indian races and I just ate and drank whatever I could lay my hands on. Paid for it by having to use the washroom 5 times during the race. If you are a woman who has run the Comrades , you will know how tough it is to find even one clean washroom! So, stick to stuff you are used to having during a race.
- Talk to yourself through the race. Even the most well trained athletes realize that the last 20K is purely a battle of the will power. So, happy chatting up and getting to know yourself better!